Sunday, September 23, 2012

Public Enemy "Most Of My Heroes Still Don't Appear On No Stamp" (Enemy Records): Tender Trap "Ten Songs About Girls" (Fortuna Pop!)
 
"So now who's still in the game, since back then ?" - PMD, "'87 to the Present"
 
 














This post is, unapologetically, a *celebration*.

It's twenty-five years ago that John Peel (g.r.h.s) helped introduce us to Talulah Gosh and Public Enemy, twenty-one since we were twin-tracking "Apocalypse '91... The Enemy Strikes Black" and "Heavenly vs. Satan", fourteen since "He Got Game" on twelve rubbed up against "Queen B" on seven, eight since "MKLVFKWR" lost out in the subtlety stakes to "¿Como Te Llamas?" and five since we thrilled to "How You Sell Soul To A Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul?" whilst anxiously wondering whether "6 Billion People" would prove Tender Trap's swansong. And now, there's a transatlantic new album face-off between these two titans of modern music.

Public Enemy are rightly back in the public consciousness at the moment, thanks to the adoption of "Harder Than You Think" (a highlight from "How You Sell Soul", originally released to no fanfare at all in 2007) for Channel 4's Paralympic coverage. Although it's their 17th UK hit, upon reaching a giddy no. 4 in the charts it's become their long-overdue first top ten single here. That aside, it seems that nobody under the age of 40 cares about PE any more, which is rather a shame given that "Most Of My Heroes..." might be their best album since "Apocalypse '91". Ah, "perhaps not hard", you say, but do persevere: from the "Fight The Power"-referencing title and from the very first beats, you can tell that the Enemy are seeking to revisit the golden days of the Bomb Squad's initial deployment: although interestingly, much of what's best here sounds closer to the Bomb Squad's work for Ice Cube on "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted" (oh, and the opening track knowingly purloins the spoken-word sample that later kicked off Cube's "Really Doe") than their legendary underpinning of Public Enemy's own classic albums.

That first track, "Run 'Til Its Dark", is typical: Chuck D veritably steams in, laying into injustice in his trademark, trenchant way. He's flanked by a soundtrack of horn-flayed funk samples over which he juggles population statistics and a Family Fortunes "survey says" motif, although the song is a little derailed when a full minute is taken up by a bizarre and thoroughly unnecessary sequence of random guitar solos. Then comes "Get Up Stand Up": Chuck and Brother Ali deliver brilliant, angry verses bemoaning how hip-hop's optimism and storytelling has been usurped by blood diamonds, bad role models and avarice, while the music fair simmers with 60s/70s-tinged revolutionary fervour. The third tune, the hard-hitting and drop-filled single "I Shall Not Be Moved"

"another defiantly retro single, the samples still hard, regimented and funky as Chuck D excoriates everything that moves and that doesn't keep it real..."

is just as strong, boasting on LP an additional, half-minute bass solo (and why not ?) as well as an extended version of the song's "gagging on Gaga" play-out.

Our other picks from this set come from collaborations: PE tend to use guest rappers sparingly, but that does mean they make astute choices (as devotees of Cube and Kane's mic-blessing cameos on "Burn Hollywood Burn" will testify). On "Get It In", Chuck joins forces with Bumpy Knuckles aka Freddie Foxxx (not to be confused with Freddy Fox from "Peppa Pig"). Bumpy is in esteemed company these days, having recently teamed up with both Nas and DJ Premier, and his stanzas, including an admission that he always wanted to be an S1W, are gold dust. The track is only really dampened by Flavor Flav delivering its third verse (older readers may be reminded of the way so many NWA cuts featured an on-fire Cube and an in-flame Ren before Eazy-E then came in to mop up the remaining bars, and invariably kind of ruined things).

Then there's "Catch The Thrown", with Fat Professor and a real current favourite of ours, Cormega, dropping heat and science in equal doses alongside Chuck's usual imperious rhyming. 'Mega takes the time to deliver a pay-off line about the death of Trayvon Martin, too. And on "Rltk", based around a mid to late 80s-era Jam Master Jay-style beat, Chuck steps in to play the Reverend Run role as none other than DMC lays down some grandstanding Hollis holler.

It's sad, but instructive, that the overall sentiment of the album comes across as this: whereas Public Enemy, once in the vanguard of the rising and rebellious power that was hip-hop, railed against a white establishment, now they also feel the need to rail against a new black musical establishment which trivialises and vulgarises their concerns. "Most Of Our Heroes..." is a lament for how the revolution that gave birth to the golden era of rap was soon co-opted and repackaged as a mere commodity. Of course, there are other targets for their ire: you are left in no doubt that is no fan of the Tea Party. And there are a number of crystal clear anti-homophobia references (including Harvey Milk being listed as one of Chuck's should-be-on-a-stamp heroes) which, given some murkier aspects of PE's lyrical past, are particularly welcome. And as Chuck says (on more than one song!)

"At the age I'm at now, if I can't teach / I shouldn't even open my mouth to speak"

All in all, there's a neat symmetry to the current PE resurgence, a resurgence which this record underlines. Not only does its title hark back to Chuck's immortal lines from "Fight The Power", but Flav's contributions to "Harder Than You Think" - which hovers even now in the upper echelons of the UK hit parade - are deliberate callbacks to lines he first delivered back on their début single, "Public Enemy #1". Public Enemy still have plenty to teach all of us (not least the overlooked art of, um, making great art), and Chuck D remains the most passionate, positive teacher of all.

Like Public Enemy, Tender Trap stand for dignity, purity and hope (just check out the purple, white and green if you don't believe us), albeit that "Ten Songs About Girls" is more compact, less didactic, and - you will be unsurprised, perhaps relieved, to know - ploughs a different musical furrow. But it excites similar superlatives. In fact, it's even better than "Most Of My Heroes" and if Fortuna Pop!'s bank manager had allowed it, we've no doubt they'd have released every song here as a single, Wedding Present '92-style, for the confidence and depth on display is quite striking.

This record is the complete package: full of hooks, and notable for its gorgeous use of three-part harmonies and overlapping vocals, but unlike some of their contemporaries Tender Trap also know to keep the guitars roaring, rather than limply nu-folkish. "Ten Songs" displays some magpie tendencies, discreetly plundering influences and reference points from that last quarter-century and beyond, yet each song stands up as an *original*, instead of a knowing homage, a studio experiment or a "will this do ?" re-tread. Like all LPs that sound so organic, so natural, so effortless, one suspects that in reality a huge amount of thought has gone into arranging and *realising* the songs within.

"Train From Kings' Cross Station" makes for a tremendous opener, all wheels and dust (a bit like the Great Leap Forward's "Flying Scotsman") as Amelia travels north in a stellar if cheeky re-write of "Train From Kansas City". It starts with the sampled thunder of said train, quickly translated into muscly drum and bass and an opening half-minute of one-chord wonder that puts one a little in mind of Sportique's "Arthouse Cinemas", but from that springboard the song simply bounds skyward, thanks to the kind of spritely strumming and gorgeously intertwining vocals that postively *infest* this album. And the 33 minutes *fly* by in just that same spirit: so many moments on this record are pristine examples of what Amelia no doubt dreamed of, all those years ago, when Talulah Gosh announced their intent to fuse the spirit of punk rock with the cascading vocal joy of the Dixie Cups.

There's the piledriving single and tribute to the DIY ethic, "Step One", which we devoted a sentence or two to a short while back. There's the rampant "Broken Doll" (we thought that it was going to be about the much-missed Newcastle venue, but actually it's about the late Amy Winehouse), which jumps energetically from percussion and handclaps to frazzled indie-pop rattle, gathering frightening pace towards the end (not since the messy final sprint of "Testcard Girl" has Amelia featured on a song which such acceleration).

There's the prickling, affecting "Memorabilia": incredibly touching and almost audaciously pretty, but made perfect by the way that the instrumentation rears up, late on (like "Step One", there's a touch of post-punk at play, like Girls At Their Best gone feral) and shunts the song to a satisfyingly shouty conclusion as the lost opportunities of days past are set against a tremulous wall of guitar noise. Oh, and "MBV" is no slouch, cheekily updating a line from Orange Juice's "Consolation Prize" before the melodies and split harmonies rain down (the chorus dwells on a doomed relationship, but a shared love of My Bloody Valentine). Oh, and there's a lyrical nod to the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, too.

What else ? There's "Leaving Christmas Day", which would no doubt have been the December release had Suge been able to get going with a monthly "Ten Songs" singles club and which contains, in its sublime "ba-ba-ba" segment two-thirds of the way through, maybe the *highest* high of the whole record: imagine the sugar rush of "My Boy Says", multiplied tenfold. There's "May Day", a slightly more raucous and truly fabulous song which - like "Atta Girl" - has that "Britpop, if it was good" feel: one can speculate that Lush, for example, would have run through walls to have written it when they went all poppy, circa "Lovelife". There's "Love Is Hard Enough", the anthem - remixed for the B-side of "Step One" - which surely would, if the world would only tilt back onto a just axis, be the album's smash hit: yet again, it contains a chorus which suddenly *leaps* from the speakers and smothers you with kisses, before it (and the album) wrap up via a children's singalong which might sound contrived on a lesser song, but which here (just like the "Hang the DJ" refrain of "Panic", or even the choir on "It's Cliched To Be Cynical at Christmas") fits like a *glove*.

"Ten Songs" satisfies on first listen, but it repays many more. For once those hooks lodge themselves in your head, this is a record that just keeps delivering. It soon reveals itself as Tender Trap on the best form of their career so far: as I, Ludicrous once sang (of the Fall), "for me, they just get better and better".

(A footnote, but an important one: we know as well as anyone that equating Tender Trap with Rob and Amelia's old bands, as we've done above, is at best a fairly lazy shorthand. The whole line-up on this record, also comprising Katrina Dixon, new signing Emily Bennett, veteran from the Marine Research days John "DJ Downfall" Stanley and the outgoing Elizabeth "Allo Darlin'" Morris, deserves full credit for it. But we hope you understand why, for us, the thrill of Tender Trap is synonymous with that of those former bands and line-ups too).

So hell yes, this post is a celebration. Dame Amelia, Sir Rob (via Five Year Plan, initially!) and MistaChuck have been there for us for the last 25 years. In our book that makes them living legends, for sure, but unlike many others (Lydon, Cube, and T to name but three) they are routinely producing new records which demand respect *on purely musical terms*. This is rare, but IMPORTANT. Most of our heroes, Tender Trap and Public Enemy amongst them, don't appear on any stamps. Until that's rectified, we'll continue to shout their praise from the rooftops.

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